Interview by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for TSS Publihing, Joanna. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work.
First of all, huge congratulations on your recent successes – winning the 2015 London Short Story Competition with your story ‘Upshots’, and this year being shortlisted for the International Rubery Award with your story collection When Planets Slip their Tracks. Can you describe your feelings when you learn you have been successful in such prestigious awards? Perhaps, also, you would tell us something about why you enter competitions, and whether you had many rejections before you started winning.
Thank you so much for thinking of me and for your kind words, Lindsay.
When my stories are successful, my first reaction is to disbelieve it! When the news does finally sink in, the author part of me immediately longs to have the story back to improve it before publication. But the other part is deeply grateful to the judges, humbled because of the high quality of the shortlist, and, most of all, inordinately pleased for the story itself.
I am diffident and self-effacing by nature, so, even after eight years, am still faintly surprised that I enter my stories into writing contests. It began partly as a way of finding out if anyone enjoyed my writing enough to publish it, but also to hone the craft. If a story succeeds, I try to work out what was appealing about it for future reference. If it if fails, I pull it to pieces—in a positive way, after a brief wallow in self-pity—and rebuild it. Either way, the success and failures have become a method of teaching myself how to write and, more importantly, how to keep improving.
I have received plenty of rejections and although they sting at first, I am usually glad, because after the initial moment of hurt pride, I am remarkably unsurprised that the story failed. This stems from the awareness, deep down, that perhaps I sent the story with hope, rather than with certainty. Although it is important, of course, to be optimistic and have faith in your entry, it needs to be perfect before submission, or as close to perfection as possible. When I take a rejected story back to the drawing board, I can see, often from the first paragraph, why it was not ready to triumph. And for all writers facing rejection, I would suggest it is often a case of the piece not being ready, rather than hopeless.
You received wonderful praise from the judges for Upshots. Jon McGregor described the ‘confident use of voice and perspective’, and Kevin Barry said the story had ‘a delicious blend of light and shade’ with ‘not a single wrong note in it’. What was your original idea for the story, and what process did you go through during its creation?
Thank you so much! Yes, it was an unforgettable moment when I read the feedback. I always aim for a satisfying rhythm within the narrative, avoiding words or phrases which grate, or inconsistencies which might devalue the mood of the piece, so Kevin Barry’s words—‘not a single wrong note in it’—still bring a lump to my throat.
As I had already written a successful story with a young boy as the narrator, I was inspired to write Upshots from the viewpoint of eight-year-old Stan. It can be quite a challenge to create a convincing child narrator. If not handled with care, they can turn out either precocious or downtrodden. I was tempted by black comedy in order to avoid mawkishness, which is another potential pitfall with child narrators. Stan is an ordinary boy, slightly slow-witted, while at the same time secure in his own beliefs, with a down-to-earth, if rather distorted, view of his family’s sensitive situation.
As always, in order to construct the story I plagued myself with questions. Why? So what? How? For example, if Stan is self-assured, what exactly has made him so? These questions always remind me of my eldest daughter’s ex-boyfriend. Whenever she tried to chat to him about things she had done, just the innocuous day to day trivia couples usually exchange, he would ask, “And that would interest me because…?” (So glad he didn’t last long.) However, although I despised his contemptuous attitude, I did steal his question and now apply it all the time to my writing. And this would interest the reader because…?.
When I wrote ‘Upshots’, Stan took on a shape and then he took my hand and led me, eventually taking over the story and steering it to the conclusion. This is how I always write, with the character calling the shots. I never plan ahead anymore or work out a plot. On the occasions I have tried to do so, the story has rarely succeeded. There was no outline for ‘Upshots’. Once the voice of the story, was established, he wrote it for me.
Thinking of McGregor’s comment about ‘confident use of voice and perspective’, how important do you think ‘voice’ is for a successful short story? And how do you get inside your characters’ heads to find their voice, especially if they are very different from you, such as the pregnant American teenager in your collection?
The ‘voice’ is hugely important. If the theme is the hinge and the plot is the oil keeping it in smooth motion, it is the ‘voice’ which opens the door.
The further I am removed from the character, the more successful the story will be. When I first started writing, I realised how much I dislike discovering myself in the narrative. To this end, I often write from a male perspective, or, as in the case of the pregnant American teenager, from a perspective which has only the slenderest connection with me. I am afraid of entering their heads, in case I run the risk of ‘me’ intruding and therefore influencing. Initially, I watch them from a distance and observe how they respond to the conflicts they face. Then I go in closer and attach myself, a kind of shadow. I am not exactly a part of them, nor them of me, but I am at their shoulder, breathing down their neck, and wholly invested in their dilemma.
In the collection When Planets Slip their Tracks, you are described as catching your characters ‘in the moment where they find themselves floundering. These are characters at the edge of their endurance when life threatens to tip out of their control.’ How do you usually get ideas for your stories? And why do you so often place your characters in the moment when their lives are imploding?
I never search for material. The ideas emerge from the past most of the time, with childhood memories playing a huge part. I was a cripplingly shy child, a listener and a watcher, rather than a talker. I soaked up seemingly meaningless moments, absorbing people’s mannerisms and their snatches of conversation. I believe writers are often outsiders, who can appear disengaged from the society they watch and study, but are, in fact, deeply engrossed in those they observe.
My mind has mopped up a boundless store over the years and I only use a scrap at a time, enough to provide a spark, after which the story is fuelled by my imagination. I think imagination needs to be stretched like a muscle and extended beyond the original concept, so that you are travelling way beyond the scrap you already know and into a realm no one has entered before you.
I only have to think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and its first line—As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect—to remind me that a short story is about the raw power of the moment. I see it as a huge, beating heart which will stop dead if the reader’s attention is lost.
At the moment of implosion, the reader is more likely to be captivated by the ‘voice’ if the viewpoint character is already, or about to be, deep in the midst of a dilemma.
I try hard—not always successfully, but am learning—to avoid the longwinded build-up and the rambling conclusion by applying the concept of the well-behaved party guest: ‘arrive late, leave early’. To this end, during edits I concentrate on making certain the action is already in full swing as the reader enters the scene. If all goes well, the reader leaves at the moment he would choose if this really were a party, content to work out what might happen next without first being put through a wringer of nitty-gritty niceties.
What particularly appeals to you about the short story form?
As a writer, the appeal is in the irresistible challenge of creating a character who can grip the reader’s attention for the entire duration. Short stories tend to be read in one sitting, so pinning the reader to the seat, maybe forcing them to miss their stop if they are on a bus, is a daunting, yet seductive task for the short story author.
As a reader, I love the immediacy, being thrust into the action straightaway, inspired to work out what is happening quickly because the ending is just over the page. It is similar to an unfinished picture, with outlines roughly sketched in and left unpainted. Perhaps the true essence of a short story is its power of ‘suggestion’. If the author holds some information back from the reader, then the ‘real’ story lies between the words and paragraphs, hidden within the plain paper. My favourite story is Gilbert’s Mother by William Trevor, because the third or fourth time I read it, Gilbert—and his mother—appeared in a completely different light, purely because of the white space.
You have also written a novel, Tying Down the Lion. Is a novel something you always wanted to write, and what were the challenges you faced (as opposed to short stories) in writing it?
The process varied from writing a short story in that the excitement of a broader plateau in which to cram extra characters and more happenings resulted in far too much material. I also concentrated too hard on setting the scene and added too many splashes of local colour. In the end, I took advice from a literary consultancy to rein it all in, chop all the fussiness out and focus on the essential characters and their motivations. So the mechanics of editing were not so different from writing a short story after all.
In early drafts, I tended to write in an episodic way, a hangover from all the years of writing short stories, and needed to make the scenes interconnect to form a more cohesive and seamless whole. Pacing was important too and I had to bear in mind that having a hundred thousand words at my disposal didn’t mean I should keep drawing the action out.
While the novel maintains a sense of life rolling on, the short story alludes to that. So one of the main differences when writing a novel is that you have much more to create in order to encompass the passage of time and its effects on the characters.
The titles of your stories and your novel are intriguing. How important do you think titles are, and how do you decide on your titles?
I love choosing titles, but don’t always get them right! When one of my stories was placed in a competition, the judge’s feedback offered some kind words of praise, but ended with …what a terrible title though! I still like it and have stood by it—it is in my collection, unchanged—but as with the stories themselves, the choice of title is highly subjective. Its relevance to the story is important, of course, and if it foreshadows the events—deliciously evident only in hindsight—then it becomes a memorable title and the story itself is more likely to be remembered and re-read.
I often choose the title by extracting a line from the narrative which summarises the theme of the story. Tying Down The Lion has a spider motif running through it and the central characters are connected by emotional bonds ‘stronger than spider silk’, which apparently, in the right quantity, is mightier than steel and could tether a lion. In When Planets Slip Their Tracks, the title comes from a line in a poem, ‘The First Marriage’, by Peter Meinke. This beautiful, moving piece was the inspiration for the title story, the idea of planets sliding from their pathways a reminder of how lives descend into chaos without warning. I requested Peter’s permission to quote from it and he kindly agreed.
Your novel is described as ‘hilarious and heartbreaking’ and your mixture of comic flair and tragedy is mentioned. Can you tell us more about that?
Ever since I started writing, the comic element always seemed to emerge. This happens because I am intrigued by the notion of happiness being under constant threat and the close bond between comedy and tragedy; for example, the way people laugh at wakes, as if there is a fundamental human need to wring the tension out of a sorrowful atmosphere and make a grieving person happy, even though they have every right—and perhaps every need—to be sad.
The inevitable crossover between emotions, that strange blend of the cheerless and the upbeat, is more intriguing than the line which divides them. Whenever a bleak situation is uplifted by humour, or vice versa, I am on solid ground. But the humour should never be forced or overused and I’m still learning to control and ration it accordingly.
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Joanna. It’s been fascinating to hear your thoughts both about your own writing and short stories generally.
It was a great pleasure, Lindsay. I enjoyed it very much and all the thanks go to you for your thought-provoking questions
Joanna Campbell’s short stories have been published in multiple literary magazines and in anthologies from Cinnamon Press, Spilling Ink, Earlyworks Press, Unbound Press and Biscuit Publishing, as well as The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, both the 2013 and 2014 Rubery Book Award anthologies and the 2010 and 2013 Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies. Shortlisted five times for the Bridport Prize and three times for the Fish Prize, among other awards. Most recently her story ‘Upshots’ won the 2015 London Short Story Prize. Campbell’s first novel, Tying Down The Lion, was published by Brick Lane in 2015. Ink Tears Press published her first short story collection, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, in January 2016. Her second novel, Estuary Road, which is about the way our lives can unravel in a split second, is currently with her agent, Elise Dillsworth. Her website is here, she tweets from here and her Facebook page is here.
The TSS review of Campbell’s short story collection can be read here.
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn has written three novels. The most recent is ‘The Broken Road’. ‘Unravelling’ was published on 2010, and came second in The Rubery Book Award in 2011 and won the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Award. ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ was published by Cinnamon Press in 2013, after winning their novel writing award. Lindsay also writes short stories and flash fiction, which have been published in various anthologies, including Fish, Cinnamon and Rubery. She has an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and combines writing with her work as a creative writing tutor.
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